One of the first sectors to adapt to an online environment was, by necessity, retail. In its infancy, e-commerce was a precarious affair, plagued with stock shortages, communication breakdowns and the lack of infrastructural support customers needed to get what they wanted.
The model, even while evolving, has proven successful.
Within a few years, however, solutions designed to overcome those challenges birthed a remarkable approach to doing business: omni-channel. The influence that omni-channel, as a goal, has had in retail has made it the gold standard across all forms of business.
In the beginning
Big retailers saw their customers wanted to shop via their Web sites; not content with simply browsing online catalogues, they wanted to make purchases immediately. This introduced many challenges: how could a chain of stores centralise stock? How could secure payment options be created? How could customers find out more about products? How could they track their purchases prior to delivery? And, that quintessential retail challenge – if purchasing online, how could businesses ensure customers were able to interact with them via phone regarding their purchases?
These conundrums were behind the need for a business option that could tie all the threads together. Information and transactions that happened on a Web site needed to be connected to interactions that were happening via phone and e-mail in the contact centre. All these channels, as they became known, had to flow together – in harmony.
A solution was needed that could ensure the individual channel silos were brought into one place, providing a seamless experience for the customer. That’s what drove the need for an omni-channel service that combined all of the touch points in the contact centre and connected them via the relevant channels to the necessary business units.
Fast-forward a good few years and the retail environment has become even more complex, with customer preferences generating the need for even more channels – social media, chat, in-store and more – so much so that the average business uses nine contact channels.
With the demand this places on businesses and contact centres to keep all lines of communication centralised and operating in concert with data generated and stored, the challenge of creating an omni-channel environment has grown, too.
The original concept was to serve and supply customers according to their needs, but the omni-channel solution requirement has now permeated the entire business framework. After all, the whole supply chain was influenced: the IT department has become integrated into all departments; operationally, it became necessary for every single business unit to be connected to this same network to create a more efficient space where interactions could be conducted, tracked and recorded, with data generated being stored for the purposes of improved, personalised customer service.
The model, even while evolving, has proven successful. As a result, it has since been adopted by many other sectors. In the financial sector, it’s a means of centralising complex interactions that may involve multiple touch points, including providing product information regarding financial products, identity verification, contract signing processes and secure payments, and, of course, regular customer service interactions such as aftersales or debt collection. Companies that use processes such as these benefit from having their channels integrated.
Omni-channel is becoming the desired norm in hospitality (large hotel groups and airlines), healthcare (delivery of medicines and medical insurance) and more, including the public sector – any organisation needing to manage and track large volumes of interactions with customers needs the kind of seamless service delivery omni-channel can provide.
What began as a clumsy transition into the online environment for retail stores has now progressed to the point where cutting-edge technology, such as the first steps into employing artificial intelligence-styled assistance, is being deployed.
The immediacy of retail means it’s the perfect place to monitor customer experience and to introduce improvements, placing retail and the contact centre at the forefront of technology development. The pace at which customer preferences and expectations are evolving means innovative solutions will be deployed in order to keep up with, and meet, those needs.
Experts in the field are predicting the increased implementation of artificial intelligence solutions into this mix of communication channels. This next stage is in its relative infancy. One factor that will influence this is that companies must adapt according to consumer preferences.
While an AI solution may be available, if the volumes of customer adoption of that solution are low, it may not warrant the implementation of such a solution, particularly if other channels can cope adequately with the kinds of transactions being done.
I’d say the industry is already in the future stages of omni-channel, still understanding its potential and developing strategies around it. The future of omni-channel is omni-channel, perhaps not in a way that is understood now, but certainly in the development of applications that optimise its benefits for companies and customers.
This article was first published by ITWeb on 21 July 2017.